U.S.-European Trade Talks Go Under a Dark Data Cloud


With leaks revealing the extent that the American government has spied on its transatlantic allies, European leaders threaten there could be serious consequences for major EU-U.S. trade talks. Photo by Peter Dazeley/Getty Images.

WASHINGTON — Usually, gatherings of European and American parliamentarians produce a gush of words about transatlantic solidarity and cooperation. But not so since the National Security Agency spying scandal hit European newscasts and front pages nearly a month ago.

Now, fallout from the revelations of massive U.S. data mining on European citizens, especially users of social media sites, threatens to undermine talks on a major U.S.-European Union trade and investment treaty that formally opened on Monday in Washington.

Data protection had promised to be an issue even before Edward Snowden became a household name on both sides of the Atlantic.

The tone and depth of European dismay was made clear at a Washington gathering Tuesday morning, with four members of the European Parliament from the European People’s Party. With 275 members from center-right parties across Europe, the group is the largest in the 766-seat body and usually the one most open to transatlantic trade and political cooperation.

The spokeswoman for the delegation, European Parliament member Corien Wortmann-Kool of the Netherlands, asserted that candor was needed among friends; she acknowledged that friendly governments spy on each other but not on large numbers of each other’s citizens.

“The unprecedented scale of the operation,” is what worries European citizens and their politicians, Woortman-Kool said at a meeting of the European Institute, a Washington organization promoting EU-U.S. cooperation.

The message, she added, is that the U.S. government is treating European nations as if they were Iran, Syria or Afghanistan.

Another member of the group, Manfred Weber of Germany, labelled “unacceptable” President Obama’s explanation that privacy rights of U.S. citizens are protected by laws authorizing massive data mining but not necessarily the rights of EU citizens.

Weber and other delegation members emphasized the European indignation over the revelations could turn into practical problems in the negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that could expand trade between the two blocs by another $300 billion annually.

Weber said only a close vote averted a European Parliament effort to stop the talks before they even got underway. The European Parliament, like the U.S. Congress, must ratify any trade accord.

European data protection laws are already more strict that those in the United States, and the issue for the talks, even pre-Snowden, was whether the two sides could agree on a set of regulations for American companies, such as Facebook, operating in the 28 nations of the EU. Weber said Europeans now are going to have to consider whether to protect data collected by U.S. companies within Europe.

The European parliamentarians spent Tuesday talking with their U.S. counterparts, Congress. But in preliminary meetings so far, the message from Congress has been that it is passing laws for American companies.

The trade talks, with agriculture and financial regulation issues already looming large in addition to data protection, are expected to last at least a year.

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.